Gone

 There was a tree that stood old, crooked and tired by the pond.

A run through the cornfield brought us from pond to shelter when spring hail pelted our exposed backs. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but it stands clear in my memory as witness to our childhood. It’s the landmark I look for still when I return home to examine the evidence that remains from another time and place.

I am a detective on my trips back in time. Some part of me believes that I will turn over a rock or stumble on a tree root that will expose or reveal a childhood treasure, some thing that waits for me, some thing that lives just out of view. Some part of me believes that the past exists in it’s entirety behind a veil and if I can chance upon the opening, that I will once again step into that untouched place.

The only thing left of the farmhouse I grew up in is a corner lot, two paved driveways and a single cement step. A lilac grows abundant and unchecked near the entrance. But was the bush on the right or the left of the path? There are only clues.

What do I need to do?

Smell the lilacs?

Enter the trees?

Walk along the pond’s edge?

Find a key buried in the dirt?

Maybe the barn swallows can lead me back. Maybe they know the path to the rafters and the pungent smell of fresh mowed hay.

I know it’s all there.

I know it’s all waiting for me.

I can feel it and taste it. Almost touch it.

There is my Aunt locking the screen door because she has just mopped the floor. There I am, banging on the latch to get in, unwilling to be separated.

My grandmother is asleep in the upstairs bedroom ~ or ~ looking out through lace curtains as my uncle plows the field below.

This place lives in me, so it must live out there as well, but how do I get to it?

How do I get back?

That time belongs to me, as surely as my skin and bone, but I can’t find it anymore.  I have lost it.

Where did it go?

I am the daughter of that time and place.

I am the daughter of the land.

The rest has just been story.

 written 5-7-08

The Cornfield

My aunt’s spirit came to visit me the night she died.

I remember it like a midnight fog.

I got up from my bed and let her in.

I don’t remember conversation, just the distinct sense of saying goodbye.

In the morning I woke, thinking it was just another dream, but as I made my way into the living room, past the piano, I noticed the front door ajar, and the reality of the experience came back.

The next week I received a letter from my uncle telling me she had passed, the same day and hour of her visit.

He enclosed a photo of her standing in the cornfield.

He said she was reaching skyward to show how tall the corn had grown, but I saw a farewell wave, a final and loving goodbye.

I’d written a letter ten years earlier, telling her of my love, and expressing all that she’d meant to me. My uncle told me she carried it in her apron pocket until the day she died.

written May 21, 2008

The Tablecloth

One of my earliest memories is the billow of a red and white tablecloth drifting slowly to the ground under the broad sheltering leaves of a maple tree. I had been riding on the fender of my uncle’s tractor, my young fingers grasping its rounded lip in hot dusty compliance. I had listened intently to the terrible things that befell children who could not hang on tight as the tractor lurched forward. I was determined not to be one of the maimed or injured.  I held on with aching hands as everyone else gathered hay bales, tossing them high and hard to my cousin, who stacked them on the long flat wagon, his black hair sprouting from a white sailor cap, while pieces of hay stuck to his bare chest and oil-stained jeans.

My aunt crossed the fields in her worn cotton dress and long apron, high temperatures slowing her gait as she forged through noon day sun. Small drops of moisture escaped from the strands of gray that curled near her ears and forehead. She wiped at them like pesky mosquitoes. It was the arrival of the picnic basket to the welcome shelter of the tree, and the wave of that red and white tablecloth floated slowly from air to earth that signaled an end to work.

Lunch on the farm tasted different, because the food was laced with sweat, hard work, long hours and welcome release. The men moved bone-tired from the fields or slid from the wagon, eager to yield to the pull of gravity. They pushed back their caps, wiped their brows with bold red handkerchiefs, and dropped like heavy weights under the tree. Lunch meant tall pitchers of iced tea or lemonade poured over fiery throats, ham and cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, and pies made from whatever berry was in season. Each ingredient was colorful and dense, so rich or sweet, it seemed to explode with each bite. The men relaxed, ate and told stories, their easy laughter filled the air.

clouds over wheat field

Being outside made life real and significant. I was significant too, but not because of anything I learned or had become. I was important simply because I existed and belonged. I was made real in the broad honest smiles of the men, and the way my uncle grasped the wheel with the two fingers that remained on his leathery right hand. I was made real in the flour and sticky sugar that clung to the corners of my aunt’s apron. I was the chatter box on the fender who was my uncle’s ‘niece little nice.’ In that place, I was embraced and included for all that I was, and all I was not.

I belonged to the farm. I belonged to the scent of fresh cut fields, the cows in the mud, acres of corn and sun-ripened berries along dusty roads. I belonged to all of it and it belonged to me. Going inside hid me from that. Buildings kept me safe and sheltered, but separate.  In open space, I knew myself through and through. I filled my lungs with the definition of life. I felt real and liberated.

All my finest memories are out of doors; the memories I am eager to forget live behind darkened walls and in caged rooms.

written July 19, 2008

Eggs

I remember piles of broken china and figurines half buried in mounted earth near the small shed by the front porch. I used to sift through them with my young hands, each shattered piece a treasure of discovery.

The farm house was my safe place. I would wake from the chaos of my home, go to the stables, saddle my horse and ride six miles through unfenced terrain until I reached the welcome land that defined my aunt and uncle’s farm. The pond was the first to come into view. It lay quiet on my left, like tea in an unmoved cup. Herds of cows milled behind barbed wire fences on my right, as bright red barns with tall silos beckoned me forward.

I was going away to boarding school. This would be my last visit for a very long time. I was terrified to leave the land and move into an English academy in Vermont, where my days would be alien, structured and organized. I was being sent away for my health. When I neared the barn, I saw my aunt herding cows toward its shadowy interior. I stripped my horse and set her free in the field.

barn door

Aunt Ethel, I shouted, I’m leaving for boarding school this week-end.

She barely looked up.

I don’t know when I’ll be back.

She fingered the cloth hankie that slept in the pocket of her apron. Her red print dress hung above black rubber boots, a splash of mud marked her forehead below short curly hair. She slapped the rump of a cow into the stall and motioned me inside.

Don’t go givin’ yourself airs now, she said, Just cause you’re going to that fancy boarding school. Don’t come home callin’ horse shit, manure.

My heart ached at the thought of leaving. I did not want to be ripped from the four a.m. mornings, when we turned on the radio and danced around the barn together; me balanced on my uncle’s boots, Aunt Ethel squirting warm milk into the mouths of the barn cats, who were lined up waiting and mewing. I did not want to leave the symphony of clocks that ticked and chimed in every room of the house. I wanted to keep smelling black tea served in blue willow cups that warmed my fingers each afternoon. I wanted to keep seeing their reflection in the polished silver sugar bowl that sat on the large oak table.

I put my arm around her.

I’ll come back, I promised.

No, you won’t, she said. Once kids go away, they’re gone. Too bad though. You were the best of the lot.

I lifted the handle on the egg basket and walked to the hen house. Warm tears splashed against soiled brown eggs, as I carefully lifted each one from the safety of its nest. I fingered their fragile vulnerability, as I positioned them layer by layer inside the cold metal wiring of the basket.

written April 16, 2008